THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Thursday, January 17, 2013


# 10

HIGH NOON (Kramer/UA, 1952)

Do not forsake me, oh, my darlin',
On this, our wedding day.
Do not forsake me, oh, my darlin',
Wait; wait alone.
I do not know what fate awaits me.
I only know I must be brave.
For I must face a man who hates me,
Or lie a coward, a craven coward;
Or lie a coward in my grave.

Oh, to be torn 'twixt love an' duty.
S'posin' I lose my fair-haired beauty.
Look at that big hand move along,
Nearing high noon. 

DIRECTOR: Fred Zinnemann;  PRODUCER: Stanley Kramer;  ASSOCIATE PRODUCER: Carl Foreman (uncredited); WRITER: Carl Foreman from story by John W. Cunningham;  CAMERA: Floyd Crosby;  FILM EDITOR: Elmo Williams

CAST: Gary Cooper, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado, Grace Kelly, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney, Jr., Harry Morgan, Ian McDonald, Eve McVeagh, Harry Shannon, Lee Van Cleef (film debut), Robert J. Wilke, Sheb Wooley, John Doucette, Chuck Hayward, James Millican, Tom London, Harry Harvey, Bud Geary, Lee Aaker

HIGH NOON is one of the most famous and best-liked Westerns ever made.  Practically everybody is familiar with the plot of the town marshal (Cooper), deserted by the rest of the town and his new bride (Kelly), but because he is a man of courage and integrity, "he does what a man's gotta do" and single-handedly takes on a gang of four murderous gunmen (McDonald, Van Cleef, Wilke, Wooley).

Gary Cooper as Will Kane: "I've got to, that's the whole thing."

It has been written that the film is a virtual Rorschach Test -- and so it is. 

During the film's production, scriptwriter Carl Foreman was summoned to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) which was investigating communist influence in the film industry.  In his appearance before the committee he took the Fifth and refused to name names as others had done.  Consequently, he was branded an "unfriendly witness," which was not only tantamount to admitting guilt as far as the committee was concerned.  His name was placed on a blacklist which badly damaged or destroyed the careers of others who had been the victims of similar circumstances.

It also meant that because of the fear of guilt by association that few people were going to come to the "accused" person's defense.  In fact, producer Stanley Kramer wanted Foreman to be more forthcoming with the committee and when he wasn't, the producer feared Foreman's association with the film would doom it at the box office.  As a result, Foreman does receive credit for the screenplay, but Kramer had his name removed from the associate producer's credit. 

So it is no wonder that Foreman began to see the film as an allegory for the evils of the witch hunt.  His life had become exhibit no. 1.  As far as he was concerned, he was Will Kane trying to do what was right, and having to do it all alone, because the fears of guilt by association that others felt had the effect of isolating him, just as it did Will Kane.  And that development exerted an impact on the evolution of the screenplay that he was still developing.

And that's why liberals praise the film.  However ---

"You risk your skin catching killers and the juries turn them loose so they can come back and shoot at you again.  If you're honest you're poor your whole life and in the end you wind up dying all alone on some dirty street.  For what?  For nothing.  For a tin star." -- ex-marshal Martin Howe (Lon Chaney, Jr.)

Lon Chaney, ex-marshal

The above quote is what ex-marshal Howe tells Will Kane when he comes asking for help.  Howe explains that he would be no help because his hands are severely crippled by arthritis (and they are) and that he would just be a hindrance.   But what he tells Kane certainly isn't coming from a liberal mindset.  What he says is what we constantly hear conservatives say right up to the present day.  Crime is a problem, you see, because even murderers like Frank Miller (McDonald) are not executed or locked up for good, but are let out of prison after only five years.  And now he is due to arrive on the noon train, where three of his gang (Van Cleef, Wilke, Wooley) await his arrival.  Frank Miller desires revenge and only the death of Will Kane will satisfy that desire.

And that is why conservatives should like the film.  However --

John Wayne and Howard Hawks detested the film.  Wayne was quoted as saying that it was "the most un-American thing I have seen in my whole life!"  He objected to the fact that the marshal showed fear and he stated that it was unbelievable that real pioneer settlers would have failed to come to the aid of their marshal.  But his greatest complaint concerned the final scene when Marshal Kane removes his badge and drops it to the ground.  No lawman portrayed by John Wayne would ever show fear and he wouldn't need the help of the town's citizens, though they would be willing to help if he asked.  And he sure would not have thrown his badge into the dirt.

Hawks and Wayne made RIO BRAVO (WB, 1959) as an answer to HIGH NOON.  Hawks was quoted as saying "I made RIO BRAVO because I didn't like HIGH NOON...I didn't think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help.  And who saves him?  His Quaker wife.  That isn't my idea of a good Western."

Well, evidently RIO BRAVO isn't Brian Garfield's idea of a good Western.  Here's what he says about it in his book, Western Films: A Complete Guide:  "It's overrated, overripe, and overlong....Hawks and Wayne insisted it was their 'answer' to HIGH NOON...but that is like answering a serious poem with a nursery-rhyme verse." Ouch!

(You can go here to Icebox Movies for a very good and more detailed discussion of the HIGH NOON -- RIO BRAVO showdown.) 

Two Republican presidents, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, and one Democrat, Bill Clinton, named HIGH NOON as their favorite movie.  That shouldn't be surprising.  Will Kane was a leader who had been deserted by his followers.  Nevertheless, he attempted to rally them in order to deal with the evil that his town faced.  When that failed, he did not cut and run, for he knew that the gunmen could and would track him down no matter where he fled.  So he took a stand. Presidents can't cut and run either (or shouldn't anyway).

Fred Zinnemann and Gary Cooper
So is HIGH NOON a liberal or a conservative film?  Director Zinnemann said it was neither.  He didn't even see it as a Western.  To him it was simply the story of a man faced with overwhelming odds and who, despite his fear, overcomes those odds and prevails.  In other words, its theme was much like those found in many of the director's other films.

And Professor Manfred Weidhorn also thinks that the film is neither liberal nor conservative.  He wrote in the February 2005 issue of Bright Lights Film Journal:  "The truth is that HIGH NOON is neither liberal nor conservative because such ideologies are oversimplifications of reality.  Those who put the movie in one camp or the other are merely ignoring details that do not fit in with their smug generalizations."

It has been reported that Zinnemann first offered the role of Will Kane to Gregory Peck, who declined.  Peck said he thought the role was too similar to his role as Jimmy Ringo in THE GUNFIGHTER (Fox,1950).  Later Peck would say that not accepting the role was a big mistake, but on the other hand, he graciously admitted that Cooper was a perfect choice.

Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'
But it didn't stop with Peck.  Charlton Heston, Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas, and Montgomery Clift also turned down the director's offer.  If Zinnemann could have forced a restrained performance out of Heston or Douglas (not an easy task), they could have been good in the role, but Brando and Clift would have been absurdly miscast.

For the most part, beginning with Cooper, the film is ideally cast.  But in my mind there is one big exception and that is the choice of Grace Kelly to play the marshal's bride.  This was only her second film and her first prominent role and even at this stage in her career she was a competent actress.  After all, she had appeared in nearly sixty live TV programs.  But she just wasn't right for the part.  Only 22-years-old at the time, it was hard to accept her as the wife of the 50-year-old Cooper.  But it was good beginning for her career.

In her very next film, John Ford's MOGAMBO (MGM, 1953), she would be nominated for an Academy Award and would later win one for her performance in THE COUNTRY GIRL (Paramount, 1954).  She also starred in  three successful Hitchcock films before she married Prince Rainer of Monaco and retired from the screen at age twenty-six.

Katy Jurado began her film career in 1943 acting in Mexican films.  In 1951, Budd Boetticher cast her in his BULLFIGHTER AND THE LADY (Republic, 1951).  HIGH NOON was only her third U.S. film and she is very good in the role of the other woman.  In 1954, she would replace Dolores Del Rio in BROKEN LANCE (Fox, 1954) and would be nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress.

Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado) to Harvy Pell (Lloyd Bridges): 
"You're a good-looking boy.  You've got big, broad shoulders.  But he's a man.  And it takes more than big, broad shoulders to make a man."

The marshal's name in John Cunningham's short story, The Tin Star, which is credited as being the original story that Foreman based his screenplay on, was Will Doane.  Apparently the name was changed to Kane because Jurado, who was in the early stages of tackling the English language, could not say Doane.

Lloyd Bridges, who portrays Harvey Pell, Kane's young and ambitious deputy, who deserts the marshal in his time of need, is topnotch in the role.  He had also been the subject of HUAC suspicion, but he was cleared to the degree that it allowed him to be cast in the film.  However, the suspicion still seemed to halt the momentum of his movie career.  He nevertheless continued to star in low-budget features and take supporting roles in films with bigger budgets.  Throughout the 50's he was a busy actor on the small screen during the heyday of live TV dramas.

It was TV that finally made him rich and famous.  From 1958 to 1961, he starred in the hugely popular syndicated series SEA HUNT, with reruns being shown many years thereafter.  Bridges always had a reputation for being a versatile performer in several genres, but late in life it was discovered that he had a knack for comedy.  Who knew?

John Wayne and Howard Hawks criticized HIGH NOON because it portrayed the marshal as being scared.  Well, who wouldn't be?  Here are the four gunmen who are coming after him and he is going to have to face them alone.  Only a fool -- or John Wayne -- wouldn't be scared. (L-R) Sheb Wooley, Ian McDonald, Lee Van Cleef (it is his film debut and he doesn't speak a single word of dialogue), Robert J. Wilke

Much is made of the fact that the film's story is told in almost real time.  Dramatizing that fact are all the shots of clocks around town that emphasize that the train carrying Frank Miller is due to arrive at noon.  Elmo Williams won an Oscar for his tight film editing in which the clocks played an important role.

And then there is the music.  The theme song, Don't Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin', composed by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, and sung by former B-Western singing cowboy and current C&W singing star, Tex Ritter, was awarded the Academy Award for best song.  It was the first song from a non-musical to be so honored.

Tiomkin also won the Oscar for best music.

Fred Zinnemann received an oscar nomination for best director, but lost to John Ford, who won for THE QUIET MAN (Argosy/Republic, 1953).  However, Zinnemann, who was nominated a total of six times during his career, would win the following year for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (Columbia, 1953) and again in 1966 for A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (Columbia, 1966).

Gary Cooper won two Academy Awards for best actor out of a total of five nominations.  His first win was for SERGEANT YORK (WB, 1941).  His second -- and last -- was as Will Kane.  It is probably his best performance -- and one of the best by any actor.

Westerns, like comedies, have never received much respect when it comes to Oscar nominations.  HIGH NOON was certainly accorded more respect than perhaps any other Western in history, but it too was slighted in a big way.  The film was nominated in the best picture category, but did not win.  It was a travesty.  It was beaten out in a weak field by Cecil DeMille's THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (Paramount, 1952).  Stanly Kramer always maintained that it was the controversial nature of the film's message and the intrigue surrounding Carl Foreman's role in the film's production that caused HIGH NOON to lose to DeMille's second-rate film.

Surprisingly, Carl Foreman was nominated for best screenplay, but it is no surprise that he did not win.  By the time the awards were announced he had left the country.  Unlike Will Kane, he did cut and run.  Of course there was one big difference: nobody was going to track him down.  He went into exile in England where he continued his career with notable success.  As for Kramer, his treatment of Foreman would forever be a blot on the record of a producer noted for movies with a "liberal message."

The New York Film Critics did name HIGH NOON as the best film of the year while the Screen Directors Guild voted Zinnemann the director of the year.

After moving to Europe Carl Foreman continued a successful career as a screenwriter and producer.  He tried his hand as a director only one time.  The result was the very good WWII drama, THE VICTORS (Columbia, 1963).  This photo was taken on location for that film.  That's George Hamilton, one of its stars, on the left.

Stanley Kramer, producer of many notable films


"HIGH NOON is a scorching and sour portrait of American complacence and capacity for collaborationism.  A depressed witness to the nation's self-obsessed relativism, Cooper's lawman isn't heroic but resigned and bitter." -- Michael Atkinson in The Village Voice

 "Miss Kelly fits the mental picture of Quaker girl nicely, but the femme assignment that has color and s.a. [sex appeal] is carried by Katy Jurado, as an ex-girl friend of the marshal." -- Variety

"....directing and performances are all superb and Cooper's is heart-stoppingly splendid, possibly one of the most intense performances by any actor ever to have been filmed." -- Brian Garfield in Western Films: A Complete Guide

"This is no storybook Western; this seems a replica of actuality.  It is a picture that does honor to the Western and elevates the medium of films." -- Bosley Crowther in the New York Times

"Fred Zinnemann's well-made Western has been overpraised...[but] Gary Cooper is splendid...and Katy Jurado is memorable....The conventional but sold filmmaking style is perfectly suited to the inevitable but suspenseful conclusion...." -- Steven H. Scheuer

And now for a couple of opposing viewpoints:

"Some will consider it heresy, but HIGH NOON  is a somewhat overrated retrospect, some of the pretentiousness of the story line and the conventions used in the character relationships do not hold up." -- James Robert Parrish and Michael R. Pitts in The Great Western Pictures

"In retrospect the film has a certain obviousness about it...that defuses the power of any 'message' Foreman might have intended." -- Phil Hardy in The Western


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